Ask most women, and they’ll tell you it becomes more difficult to lose weight as they approach menopause. Even when they eat the same healthy diet they’ve always eaten, fat starts to sneak up especially around the waistline and belly. How much do most women gain during menopause, and what’s the best way to prevent those extra pounds of unwanted body fat?
Weight Gain during Menopause
Most women gain 10 to 15 pounds between ages 45 to 55, the so-called menopause years. While this sounds discouraging, weight gain isn’t inevitable. During menopause, lifestyle factors have more of an impact than ever. Women who eat a clean diet and exercise regularly can minimize the amount of weight they gain during this transitional period.
What Causes Weight Gain during Menopause?
One theory is that weight gain is the body’s way of compensating for declining estrogen levels. The area where most women accumulate fat during menopause is around the waistline and abdominal region. In addition, they put on a greater proportion of visceral fat, the kind that lies deep in the pelvic cavity and increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Visceral fat produces an enzyme called aromatase that converts testosterone to estrogen. Therefore, visceral fat accumulation may be the body’s way to restore some of the estrogen lost from the non-functioning ovaries. There’s also some evidence that as estrogen levels decline, metabolism slows and appetite increases.
Another reason women put on weight in their 40s and 50s is that they lose lean body mass. Women who don’t exercise lose muscle at a rate of 3 to 5% per decade. This loss of metabolically active tissue causes metabolism to slow down, making it harder to shed excess body fat. Fortunately, this is a factor women have some control over through exercise.
In addition, menopause is a time of transition and can create additional stress as women try to deal with the changes that are happening to their bodies. Sleep problems are common during this time, and lack of sleep increases the risk of weight gain. It also elevates cortisol levels, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands that increase belly fat.
In addition, many women don’t make dietary adjustments as their metabolism slows down and still eat in the same way they did when they were twenty. Unfortunately, their metabolism is no longer primed to handle the same calorie load.
How to Prevent Menopausal Weight Gain
Exercise and diet are the keys to keeping unwanted pounds of body fat at bay. Resistance training using weights that are heavy enough to be challenging helps to reduce the loss of metabolically active tissue and kick-start fat burning. Short periods of high-intensity exercise help to bump up growth hormone levels that dwindle with age.
What about diet? A diet that’s free of processed carbs is best since processed carbs contribute to insulin resistance, which becomes more a problem after menopause. Women can benefit by slightly increasing their protein intake by enjoying lean protein sources from lean meat, dairy and vegetarian protein sources. Most women also need to cut their calories by about 10% during and after menopause to avoid weight gain.
Another factor that many women fail to consider is the importance of sleep. Women who get less than 7 hours of sleep a night are at higher risk for weight gain at any age. Lack of sleep increases cortisol levels and alters levels of appetite hormones. This leads to carb cravings and a slowdown in metabolism. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation or hypnosis may help with some of the sleep problems that are common around menopause.
The Bottom Line?
Staying lean becomes more challenging during menopause, but high-intensity aerobic exercise, resistance training, and a diet that emphasizes lean protein and high-fiber carbs can have a big impact. Menopausal weight gain doesn’t have to be something to fear. Lifestyle makes a difference.
Mayo Clinic. “Menopause Weight Gain: Stop the Middle Age Spread”
Medscape Family Medicine. “Exercise, Weight Gain, and Menopause”